It’s been called “The best video on the internet” and “An incredible story, will restore faith in humankind.” That’s obviously hyperbolic, but I do think you should carve out 12 minutes and listen to what Jim Gilliam has to say, first of all because his story is incredibly moving and second because it represents a significant cultural and religious movement that has been going on for some time but which has rarely been expressed with such clarity and openness.
I don’t wish to write a direct response to Jim’s belief system, but I do think there are several interesting issues that arise from it.
We Are All Interpreters
As you might have noticed, Jim’s story is emotionally riveting. It’s a rollercoaster of visceral highs and lows punctuated with perfect comedic timing and a few genuine moments of nervous intensity.But a good story is never just about a sequence of events. It’s about what we say those events mean.
For Jim, the cancer that caused his deep suffering and took his mother’s life screamed for interpretation and meaning. He looked at all the horror that befell him, and then concluded that the only sensible interpretation of it all was that there was no personal God. On the other hand, when good things happened, like landing a sweet job, getting on the transplant list, and receiving new lungs, he interpreted those to mean that the good in the world comes from the Internet, that is, people connected through technology.
Others, however, might interpret the events differently.
My family spoke with a devote and kind Muslim man a few weeks back, and I suspect he might reinterpret Jim’s story in such a way so as to see Allah as the benevolent force who helped him get his new job and new lungs. Conversely, a post-colonialist or feminist might interpret the events as another case of white male domination. Regardless of which interpretation is correct or why people choose a particular interpretation, something in us demands that decide one way another what our stories mean.
Story + Theological Language = Immense Power
As powerful as Jim’s story is on its own terms, he eventually seems to have thought that it needed something else. So to accentuate the narrative, to really bring the punches home, to give it meaning and carry it forward, Jim infused it with the biblical language on which he was raised. He talks about how the Internet saved him, how someone had to die so that he could live, and about religion, God, creation, and so on.
What we find here is that stories themselves are wonderful, bright little things like candles lighting up a dark night, but when they are combined with the theological language found in the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, it’s like tossing that candle onto a lake of kerosene.
Ironically, Jim might have first encountered this misappropriation of language, this application of “God” to one’s own ideas, in the ultra-conservative environment in which he was raised. At times we all use words like “God” and “good” for our own purposes, no?
But neither Jim’s childhood audience nor his adult audience noticed this. The audience just responds as if it’s the most glorious thing they’ve ever heard.
The Internet Is Godly
The Internet is pretty amazing, after all.
Remember when Jesus talked about how the Spirit of God is like the wind (John 3:8)? No one ever sees the Spirit, but we see the Spirit’s effects in the gently swaying branches of a willow tree and in the roaring waves of the ocean.
The Internet and its cloud services are kind of like that, too.
We never see the Internet, and yet it’s all around us all the time, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. When one server in the cloud fails, it is instantaneously replaced by another. It is immortal, invisible, and indestructible.
It is very god-like indeed.
The Internet is Humanity in General
But this kind of religion is too sophisticated to worship the Internet itself. No, it is the exaltation of interconnected humanity, or better, of humanity as a cloud service, constantly at our beckon call.
And yet, though it attempts to elevate humanity, under its skin it is actually quite dehumanizing. When someone on the Internet fails you, that is, when a human in the cloud fails you, he can simply be swapped out like a faulty server for someone less error prone and more stable.
This all reminds me of one of one of Dostoevsky’s characters who says,
I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. Brother’s Karamozov Part I, Book II, Chapter 4.
Of course, I mean no disrespect to Jim in particular or to any of his relationships. I mean only to point out that a view of “humanity” that is by definition abstract and fleshless will ultimately be found powerless and unhelpful. But like the cloud itself, it will adapt itself and continue to find a stronger and stronger following.